Does Crying It Out Hurt Your Baby?

When I came across an article the other day shockingly titled, “Cry It Out: The Method That Kills Baby Brain Cells,” I felt an internal wave of mom guilt and hurriedly clicked on it. 

Because, allow me to admit it: 

I have let a baby or two “cry it out” on occasion. 

And I never stopped to ask the question–does crying it out hurt your baby?

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Image via Chaunie Brusie/ j&j brusie photography

According to an article on Psychology Today, this idea theorizes that because babies release the hormone cortisol when they are stressed and because cortisol kills neurons, that allowing a distressed baby to cry alone for a lengthy amount of time quite literally damages her brain. Even more alarming, she cites research that shows that prolonged stress in babies can lead to negative health outcomes later in life, with everything from trust issues to irritable bowel syndrome. 

The article goes on to list all sorts of alarming statistics and theories about how we are forever damaging babies physically and mentally into adulthood if we let them cry for any extended amount of time and when I finished reading it, I felt pretty defeated, thinking about all of the times my baby has started crying, for instance, at the exact moment my two-year-old needed to go to the bathroom or the second I was completely lathered up with shampoo in the shower. Did I do her irreconcilable damage by not responding immediately to her needs?

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And I came to the conclusion that no, a baby occasionally crying is not going to ruin her forever. 

I mean, let's think about this realistically, guys. Obviously, babies can't communicate except through crying and obviously if they are crying, they need something. Especially when they are little, it's pretty much impossible not to respond to a baby crying. It's innate, in a way, I think. My husband thinks it's perfectly acceptable for our two-month old to cry for a few minutes while we do the dishes, but I can't do it. The sound of her crying triggers something primitive in me, which I would say is pretty natural to ensure the survival of those little helpless babies.

But we are also humans and as such, it's impossible to expect a mother to respond instantly to everything her baby needs. Even if we're talking about “natural” parenting back in the day with our ancestors–I'm guessing there was a time or two when our ancestors were busy trying to figure out how to start a fire so they didn't freeze to death and Junior had to wait one gosh-darn-ice-aged minute.  

Now, there's a huge difference between a baby crying every now and then and a deliberate attempt to get a baby to sleep by letting them cry it out, and for those instances, I will say that I really think it depends. I wouldn't for example, ever, ever consider placing my two-month old baby in her crib and walking away while she wailed. But in raising four kids, I have done that very thing to an older baby.

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I'll never forget the time, for example, when I had my first daughter and I couldn't get her to stop crying–she was eight months old and I was coming off of a night-shift so I hadn't slept in 24 hours. I was exhausted and tried everything to get her to stop crying all morning. I fed her, I rocked her, I walked her around the house, I vacuumed with her in my arms. Nothing worked. 

Finally, I gave up. 

I walked into her room, placed her in her crib, walked out, and shut the door. I collapsed outside of her bedroom door, my own tears rolling down my cheeks, as I felt like a complete failure of a mother. And then, after only a minute or two, she stopped. 

Surprised, I tiptoed into her room and peeked over her crib, where she lay, perfectly content and fast asleep. And I realized, with a rush of shame and a little bit of embarrassment, that the poor thing was simply exhausted. She just needed a minute to herself to fall asleep–and all of my efforts were just getting her more worked up. She just wanted to be left alone for a minute and sleep! 

It was a revelation to me as a parent to realize that sometimes, getting a baby to sleep is being a good parent. Babies need sleep to grow and thrive and their brains develop more while sleeping more than any other time. 

So I won't claim to be an expert on getting babies to sleep or crying it out, so I asked an expert, just in case. “I don’t think that ‘crying it out' for as long as it takes can ever hurt a baby or a young child,” says Michael Zollicoffer, M.D., a pediatrician at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. “Most of the time, parents misinterpret the baby’s crying because they are using their own base of knowledge. If babies are fed, don’t need to have a diaper change, and are not sick, when they cry most often it’s just part of their personalities. They can’t talk so they cry. Overall, crying can also be frustration on your little one’s part. Parents have to learn to understand their babies. Remember, your baby is the smartest person in the room!”

And there you have it.  

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Have you ever let a baby cry it out? 

What do you think?

Does Crying It Out Hurt Your Baby?

Chaunie Brusie is a coffee mug addict, a labor and delivery nurse turned freelance writer, and a young(ish) mom of four. She is the author of "Tiny Blue Lines: Preparing For Your Baby, Moving Forward In Faith, & Reclaiming Your Life In An Unplanned Pregnancy" and "The Moments That Made You A Mother". She also runs Passion Meets Practicality, a community of tips + inspiration for work-at-home mothers. ... More

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9 comments

  1. Profile photo of Jenna Jenna says:

    I think it depends on the CIO method. I’m not sure I agree with letting your baby scream and wail for an extended period of time. I let my baby CIO when he angry cries, like he’s just mad and needs to stew for a bit, but if he cries for over 10-15 minutes, there’s something wrong and I go get him. Also, I only do it if he’s more whimpering or his cries are really just pathetic, whiny cries as an attempt to keep himself awake for no good reason. If he is all out crying/screaming, then I will get him because that usually means there’s something wrong. My baby is 3 months old.

  2. Profile photo of Dalya Dalya says:

    I think every mom can relate to any other mom that has a crying baby that won’t go to sleep. The difference is how we choose to respond. I don’t do CIO and I do think it is emotionally harmful to babies. They cry because they want you, and you’re sending them the message that no one is coming, no matter how much they scream and cry. And multiple studies show that this hurts their sense of security. I don’t think any adult would want to be in that situation. Lol. ANYWAY, every mom has their own way of doing things, and as long as your kids grow up to be good people, do what works for you.

    • Profile photo of Jenna Jenna says:

      My baby sometimes cries because he DOESN’T want me. Sometimes he’ll fuss and cry as long as I’m holding him, but once I put him in his crib, he calms down and puts himself to sleep. He’s 3 months old. Not saying that’s true of all babies, but just saying that not all babies cry just because they want their parents.

  3. Profile photo of sabina sabina says:

    What you did is not considered letting a baby cry it out. Cry it out is a sleep training method. This article is frustrating because you say cry it out can be okay with older babies, when that’s not even what was done to with your own baby. Science says using actual cry it out IS harmful to babies.

    • Profile photo of Jessica Jessica says:

      And what YOU did not consider is that this article is for the moms who are affected by the reactionary hysteria in the mommy community that leads to blind, unfettered judgments, even if it’s just having a fussy baby while you finally pee.

      And studies are flawed. Know all those breastmilk vs. formula studies. Yeah. They’re bunk. They don’t consider the socioeconomic backgrounds, so when those variables are considered there’s no difference. Willing to bet the same here.

    • Profile photo of Jessica Jessica says:

      Oh how refreshing–someone who’s holier-than-thou on a parenting website.

      • Profile photo of Cherish Cherish says:

        Hahaha! Thank you!

        • Profile photo of Jessica Jessica says:

          Thank you as well. No sarcasm towards you–It’s refreshing to see another reasonable person who is sick of people getting butthurt when they cannot possibly consider other peoples’ lives/feelings or simply don’t have basic reading comprehension. So tired of this crap.

  4. Profile photo of verochka31 verochka31 says:

    I agree with the article. sometimes you need to put the baby down. if the crying gets worse, than the baby needs more attention. otherwise the baby needs it’s own space.

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